Archive for December, 2010

What It Actually Means to be “In Your Head”

December 29, 2010 9 comments

What follows is one of the most important and fascinating lessons I’ve ever learned about performance. Any kind of performance.

Cover of

Cover of What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

In his compilation book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell re-publishes his New Yorker article, “The Art of Failure,” in which he discusses the psychology behind why people buckle under pressure. Here’s what he says about the process that we call “choking”:

“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box.

According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.”

But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain.

Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”

Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.

The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.

Way back when, I took scene study classes in college. Beginning actors come in to programs rife with bad habits and shitck that had served them in the past. Early scene study classes have two general purposes: 1) break actors of bad technical habits, and 2) get them thinking more thoroughly about what’s going on in a scene. During such classes, the acting quality starts to improve, but the actors become less free and expressive. You can see actors start to struggle and second-guess themselves, trying to do the scene “right.” Teachers would say about such students are “in their heads,” and needed to “get out of their heads,” but without further explanation or direction the students seldom knew what that meant.

Implicit Learning

Implicit Learning – Letting the subconscious get a “feel” through repetition

Lo and behold, being “in your head” and “out of your head” has a distinct physiological meaning, as we see from Gladwell’s work. When you learn an element of performance, whether it’s a sport, an instrument, a test, taking the stage, or anything else that creates an “event,” you use one part of your brain to train another part. The conscious, explicit-learning part of the brain can think through what it’s supposed to do step-by-step, but it cannot produce a quality performance. So we condition ourselves by practicing technique explicitly and technically, over and over, until our unconscious, implicit-learning brain “gets it.” For more information on instructing using implicit versus explicit activity, read this article.

This is not headline-grabbing science. But within this explanation lies a new idea: even superbly conditioned performers and athletes can fall victim to a take-over by their explicit-brains, and become beginners again. This is paradoxical: we typically tell those who have trouble performing to buckle down and try harder. But in this case, the performance trouble is actually caused by too much buckling down. Read more…


What Is “Tough”?

December 27, 2010 1 comment

“Toughness” is an adjective that gets thrown around a great deal, particularly in politics. Many public figures go out of their way to associate themselves with “tough,” “independent” stances and hard-line foreign policy, and each successive generation paints themselves tougher than the last. In his time, the first President Bush was the hero of the Gulf War, but in his son’s time, he was the man who didn’t have the stuff to invade Baghdad. Sarah Palin, the conservative “Mama Grizzly,” is one coat of lipstick away from being a pit bull. According to her.

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt – Tough!

I’m about mid-way through Edmund Morris‘s first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. When reading this book, it becomes instantly apparent that modern conservatives who claim Teddy as a role model don’t understand the man. They simply see in their minds the famous painting of Teddy on horseback. They have no conception that, in addition to his adventures as a “Rough Rider,” he was a bookish intellectual, an eastern fop, a naturalist geek, an insufferable elitist of the first degree, a moralist serving the God of noblesse oblige, and most notably an anti-corporate reformer and social progressive. No modern conservative would come within fifty feet of the man were he living today.

But Teddy was tough. He was tough in a way that seems like it’s a class apart from figures of the modern era, save perhaps John McCain‘s imprisonment in North Vietnam. He had a toughness that most of his contemporaries had to look twice to see, because you couldn’t see it at first glance. A spindly, sickly child, he responded by toughening his body through punishing exercise. As a young Assemblyman, he annoyed and cajoled his way to prominence within his party. In his mid-twenties, he lost his young wife and his mother on the same day, and suppressed those emotions so thoroughly that he nearly never spoke of his first wife again. It wasn’t until he exiled himself to the Badlands and shot a Rocky Mountain Grizzly square between the eyes that he felt sufficiently purged to return to his eastern life. Most of us go into metaphorical exile in order to confront demons…Teddy did it literally.

Rick Moranis

Rick Moranis – Not as tough…

Reading some of these passages on Roosevelt makes me realize exactly how little energy and drive I apply to life in comparison to this Irresistible Force of lore. It makes me value the man for his toughness. But it also makes me wonder why I admire this man, but I fail to admire the modern-day brush-clearers and moose hunters who display similar ambition, egotism and stubbornness. I want to distill the virtue of toughness, and separate it away from the posturing and bravado that usually passes for it. I want to be able to separate truly tough people from the many who pretend to be tough. Read more…

9 Strategies for Influencing Others

December 18, 2010 2 comments

The Hay GroupThe Hay Group is a management consulting firm that does its own research into motivation strategies and produces self-assessment materials for students and clients. I recently took one of their assessments for an MBA class on leadership strategies. The assessment was called the “Influence Strategies Exercise,” and told me how much I rely on each of nine separate influence strategies. Their workbook then went into detail on each strategy, and the context under which it would work. Here are the nine strategies: Read more…